Sports

Avalanche Valeri Nichushkin suspended for at least 6 months an hour before team's playoff game loss

DENVER — (AP) — The Colorado Avalanche are without high-scoring forward Valeri Nichushkin for what's left of the playoffs — again.

The 29-year-old Russian was suspended for at least six months without pay and placed in stage 3 of the league's player assistance program just hours before the Avalanche lost Game 4 of their second-round series with Dallas on Monday night.

It is the second time this season he has been in the program. Stage 3 means Nichushkin violated terms of the program, which provides help for everything from mental health needs to substance abuse. Nischuskin will miss the rest of the postseason and the first month next season at a minimum.

The National Hockey League and National Hockey League Players’ Association announced the news about an hour before the start of the game. His teammates heard the news as they arrived at the rink before a lackluster 5-1 loss to the Stars that pushed them to the brink of elimination. They were outshot by a 16-2 margin in the first period and trail the best-of-seven series 3-1.

Game 5 is Wednesday in Dallas. Nichushkin leads the team with nine playoff goals this season.

Details of Nischuskin's struggles have not been disclosed. In a first-round playoff series last spring against Seattle, Nichushkin abruptly left the team and missed the final five games of the postseason.

“Val is obviously struggling with something,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said. ”Yeah, it sucks for our team. We’ve got to turn the page. We’ve got to go play way better than we did today. There’s still 20-plus guys in that room that care and want to win and that are here. That’s what we have to focus on. It hurts our team. There’s no question. He’s a great player."

Bednar wasn't willing to travel down the path when asked if Nichushkin may have let down the team.

“I’ve gotten to know Val as a person and I’ve gotten to know him as one of our teammates and I want what’s best for him," Bednar said. "I want him to be happy and I want him to be content in his life, whether that is with our team or not with our team. I want the best for him and his family. I think all of our guys are the same. We hope that he can find some peace and get help.”

Stars coach Pete DeBoer echoed those thoughts.

“On the human side, you feel for any athlete who is dealing with issues like that,” DeBoer said.

Nichushkin was gone for nearly two months earlier this season, from Jan. 13 to March 7, to receive care from the NHLPA/NHL Player Assistance Program for issues that were not disclosed. He was the second Avalanche player to enter the program during the regular season, following defenseman Samuel Girard, who said in November that anxiety and depression led to alcohol abuse. Girard returned in mid-December.

Last spring, Nischuskin's absence started after officers responded to a crisis call at the Four Seasons Hotel in Seattle before Game 3. A 28-year-old woman was in an ambulance when officers arrived, and medics were told to speak with an Avalanche team physician to gather more details.

The report, obtained at the time from the Seattle Police Department by The Associated Press, said the Avalanche physician told officers that team employees found the woman when they were checking on Nichushkin. The physician told officers the woman appeared to be heavily intoxicated, too intoxicated to have left the hotel “in a ride share or cab service,” and requested EMS assistance.

Before the season, Nichushkin dodged questions about the situation, saying only, “I know you guys want to find something there, but it’s nothing really interesting. I think we should close it.”

Asked after the game if he could see a scenario where Nichushkin and the team could at some point reunite, Bednar simply responded: “I have no idea.”

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AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed to this report.

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